Niswonger track and field invite coming to ETSU

By Seth Bartee
STAR Correspondent

   Wednesday in the sports world was a day for bringing old favorites back into the spotlight. The Washington Redskins brought back Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs. ETSU track and field Track Hall of Fame coaching legend Dave Walker is bringing back world class races to the Memorial Center.
   The Niswonger Foundation is hosting The Track and Field Invitational on Jan. 23-24. Walker, who returned to ETSU after a 3-year layoff, is trying to return the event back to its Kodak-sponsored days when they had elite track athletes from around the nation.
   Former world-class sprinters Gwen Torrence and Dennis Mitchell have run at past invitationals, and short-distance stars Steve Scott, Sydney Maree and Ray Flynn have battled it out in the mile run.
   Walker is now highlighting the men's 3,000-meter run as the feature event. Unlike past events, the featured 3,000 run will be on Friday evening. This year's featured athlete is reminiscent of the days when the US running scene featured stars such as Jim Ryun.
   In fact, Alan Webb broke Jim Ryun's 35-year-old record high school mile record of 3:55 in 2001 at The Steve Prefontaine Classic in 3:53:43. Webb, a native of Reston, Va., went to the University of Michigan for a year but he left to train with his high school coach, who helped him to his personal record of 3:53.
   Webb is now attending George Mason University in his hometown of Reston. His performance levels are impressing as he won the USATF cross-country championship this past year.
   "This is big for us to get Alan Webb," said Walker. "This is like when we got John Walker."
   To finish out the 3,000 field, Walker credits former ETSU mile star Ray Flynn for his pinning down world class athletes. Ian Connor, who has a mile PR of 3:58, will enter; Carl Savage, who has a 13:48 5K PR, and Tom Parlapiano, a Villanova track athlete coached by Marcus O' Sullivan -- the oldest man to break the 4-minute mile -- will enter with a 3:42 1,500-meter PR in the 3,000 field.
   "Ray Flynn is instrumental in helping us bring in big athletes," said Walker. "He brings in athletes he knows to this event."
   The feature in the sprints is Yolanda McCray, an Olympian. McCray's personal record for 60-meter sprints indoor is 7.46. She is sprinter with the Holyfield Track Club, which is owned by heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield.
   Ray Jones, 8:56 3000m-steeplechase runner, who ran for the Bucs from 1985-1989, says that it's hard to get Americans excited about track events.
   "Track is not a financial opportunity for athletes today," said Jones. "Running is not one of the glamour sports like football or basketball."
   "Running is the foundation of every sport and many look at running as a chore."
   Flynn, a part of the "Irish brigade" that came to ETSU in the late '70s, sees big-time athletes as a draw to Johnson City. Flynn, a world-class short distance runner in the early '80s, ran an Irish national record 3:49.77 for the mile, and 13:19 for 5000m.
   "People are always enthusiastic about world-class athletes," said Flynn. "I believe if we bring the best athletes in then people will come to see them."
   Flynn, reflecting on his running days in Johnson City, said that his most memorable moment at ETSU was beating Steve Scott, American mile record holder, and Sydney Maree, the former 5000m American record holder in the mile, in a photo finish at the Kodak Invitational in 1985. Flynn ran 3:54 to win that race.
   On the team competition side, both Alabama and UNC-Chapel Hill will bring men's and women's teams to the meet. Among other schools sending athletes will be Tennessee, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Auburn and LSU to list a few.
   "We have 35-40 teams coming this year," said Walker. "In the past we used to have 100 teams and 50 individual invited athletes. We missed several years there and now we are having to build back up."
   In Walker's absence, the coach that took his place did not focus on the meet as he did.
   "We spent almost $100,000 on this event years ago," Walker said. "Now we only spend about $23,000. We are not looking to make money off of this event. We want world-class athletes."